Health sites could spark stress

By Maraithe Thomas, News Correspondent

Many students know the feeling of getting sick at the worst possible time. Just as classes pick up and professors start loading on the work, the sniffles emerge and the joints begin to ache.
These can often be easily treated illnesses. Still, many students said they struggle to find the time to see a doctor, so they look to other options.
One option could be sandwiched between a student’s ninth trip to Facebook and trips to the inbox, but many students who feel an illness coming on said they go online to explore their symptoms.
The Internet provides accessible and affordable information for students to research their symptoms on sites like WebMD, and even Google. However, doctors are beginning to warn patients that using the Internet for a medical diagnosis in place of consulting a physician can be problematic.
‘It’s very hard to put symptoms together online without the help of a medical professional,’ said Victoria McEvoy, a Boston pediatrician. ‘Even as a physician, it’s hard for me to do and that’s with years of medical experience.’
In a column published in The Boston Globe last month, McEvoy, who is also medical director of MassGeneral West Medical Group, talked about the pros and cons of researching symptoms on the Internet. In her column, entitled, ‘Use the Internet, but include your doctor in the mix,’ she focused largely on how distressed parents come to her with fears derived from the Internet. Parents, however, are not the only ones prone to this type of anxiety, which McEvoy nicknames ‘Internetitis’ in her column.
College students tend to do this too, more than the average person because of the high amount of stress they are under, McEvoy said.
‘They tend to think things are more dire than they really are,’ she said. ‘They’re away from home for the first time and may not have access to a doctor they’re comfortable with.’
Alex Sweeney, a middler biochemistry major, said she uses the web often to investigate her own symptoms, but would never rely on one source alone.
‘I always Google symptoms and check out a bunch of different sites,’ Sweeney said. ‘WebMD is the worst. Every time you type in symptoms, it tells you that it’s cancer.’
More than anything, McEvoy stressed the importance of college students using their school’s health facilities, a service that the average person doesn’t have at their disposal. But these on-campus clinics are not always the first option students consider, she said.
‘College students tend to bad mouth their health services center,’ McEvoy said. ‘With a bad doctor at home, you wouldn’t hear about it but at college, students talk about their experiences and people hear about it.’
In a way, it’s a game of broken telephone, she said.
Kendra English, a sophomore Human Services major, said a doctor would be her first option.
‘If it’s my health that’s in question, I don’t want to waste time online not finding the right information.’
McEvoy said using the Internet as part of the diagnosis process is fine, so long as it’s not the sole determinent. A combination of using the Internet and visiting a doctor with any questions from that research is a good balance, according to McEvoy’s article. Use the Internet to quell curiosity and then bring that information to the doctor to ask questions, she said.
When using the Internet for this purpose, it is important to look at valid, accredited websites, McEvoy said. Sites that are regulated for accurate content, like the Center for Disease Control or the National Institute of Health, and not relying on user comments alone are helpful hints for getting accurate information, she said.
Some people who use the Internet to research symptoms may browse through comments left by users on their search for a diagnosis, a practice some doctors said is mostly unreliable.
‘It is interesting and tempting to read personal accounts of illness,’ said Robert Klein, director of behavioral health at University Health and Counseling. ‘They can be informative but not comparable to factual information.’
Klein said he encourages students to come in with any research they have found if they want to ask questions about it.
‘We definitely welcome students who might say ‘I read about this treatment’ and want to know more,’ he said. ‘Any chance to discuss information a student might bring in is welcomed.’

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